EU Digital Diplomacy in China

The exclusive network environment, the distinct social media ecosystem and differences in culture and values pose a challenge for EU digital public diplomacy in China. Facing such challenges, how can the EUDC represent the EU more effectively on Chinese social media platforms, and apply the right communication channels?

Optimizing digital communication on Chinese Social Media

As the EU’s official diplomatic representation in China, the European Union delegation to China (EUDC) represents the image of the EU and manages its digital public diplomacy. Aimed at creating a positive image of the EU abroad and promoting the EU’s values, public digital diplomacy in China is clearly unique compared to other European External Action Service (EEAS) missions.

1. The EU’s digital public diplomacy in China

Digital diplomacy refers to the broad use of technology, particularly the internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) based innovations in the conduct of diplomacy. With the development of such communication technologies, digital communication has become a key tool for public diplomacy, as social networks are no longer an optional tool for communication but have rather become unavoidable and indispensable. The benefits of digital diplomacy are also evident, be it to project the image of the country, or to advance its interest. However, as Nick Bryant pointed out, digital diplomacy can also coarsen public diplomacy and provoke online confrontation, thus contradicting the principles and objectives of diplomacy. In other words, the EU’s digital diplomacy in China may bring negative consequences as well and needs to be handled with care.

Digital public diplomacy is operated at both the EU and member states’ level. Under Federica Mogherini’s leadership, the EU’s diplomatic agency —the European External Action Service (EEAS)— has started to focus more on public diplomacy and the role of social media. Since then, it has established a full-time social media team at its headquarters, supported by a strategic communications team. The EU has 140 missions abroad interacting with local audiences on social media, with Twitter and Facebook accounting for the majority. In addition to the EU level, the EU’s member states also practise the commonality of daily digital diplomacy through their own ministries, representations and agencies. For example, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation is responsible for proposing and implementing Spanish public digital diplomacy through the websites and social network profiles of the Ministry, as well as through the network of its Diplomatic Missions. Even if the Member States have their own digital diplomacy channels in place complementing the EU’s communication channels in China, the EUDC represents the EU Institutions and the shared voice of EU diplomacy. In what follows we will thus focus our attention on the EUDC for the particular case of China. 

The importance of digital public diplomacy in China

Why does possible ineffectiveness or potential negative perception of the EU’s digital diplomacy in China constitute a challenge for the EU? First, despite the pandemic and changing international environment, China has replaced the US as the EU’s largest trading partner for the first time in 2020. The importance of the EU’s bilateral relations with China thus requires a cautious diplomatic approach, especially given the challenges provided by the changing international environment. As the two largest trading partners in the world the EU and China are crucial for each other’s development and prosperity. Besides a systemic rival and technologic competitor, the EU still defines China as a cooperation and negotiation partner and describes the EU as an actor committed to engaging China’s deepening reforms. China also clearly identifies its relations with the EU as an important component of the great power relations. Therefore, from the perspective of both sides, the EU-China diplomatic relationship is undoubtedly one of the most important and defining bilateral relations in the world. Yet, the differences between them make it not necessarily the easiest relationship either. The EUDC thus serves as a natural key point of contact and communication for the EU in China. As digital diplomacy based on social media has increasingly become a common practice of diplomacy between states, the daily use of EU digital public diplomacy on Chinese social media can act as an important tool to serve the EU-China relationship for the better.

Second, the EU’s digital public diplomacy in China also reflects the principles and objectives of the EU’s own foreign policy. The EU global strategy proposes to strengthen strategic communication capabilities and enhance public diplomacy in order to connect with citizens, particularly through social media. Initiatives in public diplomacy are also crucial to fostering understanding and participation in relation to the main EU priorities stated in the EU Global Gateway. In addition, the EU has a clear tradition of emphasizing the enhancement of its self-image in China since 2003. The principles and core objectives of EU international action mentioned in the EU treaties, such as ensuring EU values and promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, require practical actions to advance these objectives. However, the Chinese public’s views differ on norms such as human rights, posing a challenge to the EU and its digital diplomacy.

In their analysis of the EU’s External action, Keukeleire and Delreux defined the concept of structural foreign policy as a long-term diplomatic effort that has a multi-level impact on the target country in multiple sectors, including at the individual level. They distinguish two important aspects of structural foreign policy, with one affecting the structure, including principles and norms, and the other being sustainability. Following their model, the EU’s digital public diplomacy corresponds well to the characteristics of structural foreign policy, using daily frequency of interaction on social media to inform and shape the Chinese public perception of EU policies and norms on an individual basis. Should the EU’s use of social media to communicate directly with the Chinese public be applied effectively, it could improve the EU’s image in China and promote mutual understanding of EU normative values, thereby implementing a structural foreign policy in China through its digital diplomacy. The question is how it could do so? 

2. The EU’s Social Media Presence in China

China’s unique social network ecosystem

The EUDC currently offers three main social media platforms (Twitter, Linkedin and Weibo) to the Chinese public. Yet, while Twitter access is restricted in China, Linkedin issued a statement in 2021 to withdraw from the Chinese market. As a consequence, the EU’s voice and interaction on social media in China is concentrated on Weibo. The official Weibo account of the EU (@欧盟在中国) was registered by the EUDC in 2011 and the account activity has continued to grow ever since. It currently has more than 530 thousand followers with 1.88 million comments and likes. 

Effectively making use of Chinese social media

It has been more than ten years since the EUDC started using Weibo, with some success. On Chinese platforms, the image of the EU’s cultural and tourism sector is far better than its political and economic ones, which have been buffeted by successive crises over the past decade. For instance, the combined effects of the global financial crisis and the European debt crisis have had a clear negative impact on how the EU and the eurozone are perceived in China. More recently, the EU’s image has taken a critical turn in China since the COVID-19 outbreak. The EU’s criticisms of China’s COVID-19 response, combined with its own fraught management, have resulted in a less positive perception of the EU in China. Limited solidarity and coordination between the EU Member States in their pandemic responses, as well as towards external partners have undermined perceptions of unity in the bloc. Due to these factors, EU-related discussions on Chinese social media often reflected these negative perceptions of the EU. An enhanced EU strategy of digital diplomacy for China could counter such perceptions and give its political and overall image a boost.

As part of this effort, the EU could also perform better on its social media platforms. One-sided information on Weibo, not being audience-oriented, and not responding to the Chinese public in a timely and appropriate manner are the main problems identified. Comments, both reflecting EU positions or disagreeing with them, often receive no response from the EUDC, while this would be expected and desired by the Chinese audience. Chinese Weibo users have a positive attitude towards discourses that are consistent between the EU and Chinese official attitudes, while they hold opposing ones to those where EU and Chinese official positions clash, corresponding to the Chinese public’s support for Chinese diplomatic rhetoric. The lack of direct interaction spurs an inherent conflict of values between the two sides, resulting in comments rather than a preferred effective dialogue.

3. Possible future improvement

Based on a review of the EU’s Weibo activities, the EUDC could improve its digital public diplomacy practices on Chinese social media by taking into account the following proposals:

First, the EU should strengthen its communicative abilities in reaching out to the Chinese public on Weibo by encouraging interactive conversations rather than one-sided comments. When posting on weibo on a daily basis, specific attention should be paid to the Chinese audience’s responses to the content of the weibo. Favorable comments could be given extra attention to highlight a positive interaction and acknowledge the given support. Yet, sensitive and controversial topics that Chinese audiences disagree with should not be ignored. This would, however, require additional human (and therefore also financial) resources to manage the EUDC’s social media accounts to respond adequately and timely. The EUDC itself has emphasized the need for different forms of dialogue on sensitive issues and to keep communication open and frank. Unfortunately this is not yet a current common practice on Weibo. When Chinese audiences express objections and questions on Weibo, the EUDC rarely expresses any kind of response or enters into dialogue with the commenters. By stating the EU’s position, promoting understanding and offering an open attitude to potentially opposing voices, the EUDC could seek to manage existing differences and avoid going to the extreme of confrontation. 

Second, the EUDC could more extensively make use of its dominantly positively perceived tourism or culture image to increase its appeal and interest, thus avoiding a stereotypical didactic image on Weibo. The communicative nature of Weibo requires their content to be interactive, entertaining and using informal colloquialisms. Among the “Weibo diplomacy”, those that focus on policy propaganda, such as Russia and Iran, have a narrower reach, while those that focus on economic and cultural issues, such as the United States and South Korea, have a wider reach. More importantly, the EU still needs to further improve its political image. Yet, this requires a carefully prepared approach as if it focuses too much on politics, it may lead to the construction of a didactic image, which will then make it less influential on Weibo. Instead, the EUDC could focus on its strengths and further highlight those on Weibo, for instance through promoting its rich and diverse culture and tourism assets. Since the content of the EU Weibo feed attracts a larger audience around these dominant images, this does not necessarily imply weakening the promotion of its political image or EU values. It would rather assist in building up the EU’s profile and positive association. In addition, the EUDC can help Chinese audiences to better understand EU policies and values indirectly by establishing links between dominant areas, potential EU policies and values, thereby gradually improving the political image of the EU through Weibo. Taking advantage of promoting the convenience of traveling to the EU for example, the relationship between the free movement of people and the common external borders of the EU can be further explained from the introduction of the fact that the Schengen system allows also Chinese people to travel within most of the EU countries without restrictions once they have entered. By doing so, it demonstrates the solidarity of the EU countries and the widely shared EU values.

Third, the EUDC should further integrate its communication channels with the unique nature of the Chinese internet environment, where localized practices of digital public diplomacy are crucial. It is not enough to rely on Weibo as the only active Chinese social media platform, hence the EUDC should expand its channels of digital public diplomacy in China. The Chinese Internet has an ecosystem that is almost independent of the Western Internet, which breeds potential opportunities, but also requires the EUDC to actively explore and engage. Social media like WeChat or Toutiao do not have a length limit and can provide a more in-depth reading and communication experience for the Chinese public. In addition, with the emerging styles of new social media, China’s younger generation is even more attracted to video-focused social networking platforms such as Douyin (Tiktok) or Kuaishou. However, the proposal to expand communication channels already undoubtedly implies additional requirements of human resources and financial budgets supported by the EU and should thus be integrated in a wider and more comprehensive communication and digital diplomacy strategy.

Overall, the EU’s digital diplomacy on Chinese social media has the power to strengthen or deteriorate bilateral relations. While this may raise awareness of the EU among the Chinese public, it may also stoke the risk of negative perceptions of the EU and its foreign policy. Thus, it is essential to  effectively use Chinese social media in order to achieve the best desired outcome. Without alignment with EU objectives or audiences to be properly addressed, the EU risks losing the Chinese public’s understanding. This would jeopardize the promotion and understanding of EU values and EU interests in China and should be avoided at all costs. The EUDC has a valuable and powerful tool at hand to win over the hearts of the Chinese people, but only if used wisely. 

Author: Xiong Sihao, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Flickr